Progressive & Thought Provoking Discussions about Wild & Domestic Animal Behavior, Animal Careers, Animal Training, & More!

Lion Attack: Animal Expert Comments

The unofficial rule of thumb is that wild animals possess seven times the strength per pound of body weight compared to humans. Getting batted by a lion paw is like being hit with a baseball bat. A five hundred pound cat packs a lot of punch.

Between 1992 and 1997, animal attacks and venomous stings and bites accounted for 227 on-the-job fatalities. However the exotic mammal number paled in comparison to some of the others. See the chart and numbers at the animal attack index page.

What Makes An Animal Attack?

Unfortunately there are a lot of reasons for animal attacks. Without knowing the circumstances surrounding the incident at the Lincoln Park Zoo it is difficult to comment or pinpoint the cause. It is impossible to speculate before all the information is in. There are many factors that contribute to animal attacks.

First, there is a mistaken belief that wild animals are like domestic pets. Domestic animals have been bred for cooperative behavior for thousands of years. Even if a wild/exotic animal has been bred and reared in captivity with the best of circumstances and handling, they still remain wild animals with innate behaviors and instincts. Territorial behavior, competitive behavior, and other natural instinctive behaviors can escalate in the right circumstances.

Let me give you an illustration using a common problem faced by domestic animal owners. Many pet owners feed their pets at the same time every day. This creates anticipation and stress in the animal. (Stress is not always bad and is present in many situations.) The cat or dog may vocalize excessively, jump or paw, or run in circles while the food is being prepared--or prior to delivery. In a captive facility, such as a zoo, this manifests as pacing behavior or increased aggression. The animal may exhibit strong possessive behavior over the food or the behavior could escalate much in the same way it does in pets--amplified by the vigor and size of the creature. In the right circumstances the animal could present greater danger to the handler or caretaker.

Why Did the Lion at Lincoln Park Zoo Attack the Keeper?

Again, it is hard to speculate without all the information. I would suspect that a human or equipment failure underlies this incident since the lions were in the main exhibit at the same time the keeper was. In most facilities, the animals are kept separate from the the humans unless they are trained and handled intentionally in an educational presentation where they are handled by a professional trainer. Most animal incidents can be attributed to human error or equipment failure.

In this situation, it is my understanding that the keeper was sixty years old. I am not aware of many zoo keepers or trainers of that age. The heavy demands of the job require fast reflexes and good fitness to manage the animals.

The good news is that the staff onsite had the training and expertise to get the keeper out of the moat/exhibit, to discreetly move the public away from the area, and used the right techniques to distract the lions away from the keeper and into a safe holding area.

Don't Zoo Keepers Receive Training to Handle Animals?

The profession of zoo keeping has gradually developed into the dream job of many animal lovers. In the past, zoo keepers were merely considered as glorified janitors and did not receive special training for the job. Now collage programs specialize in the trade and offer degrees in the field. It is estimated that 78% have related degrees to the profession now.

The professional organization known as the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc. began in 1967 in San Diego, California. It promotes professionalism in zoo keeping through the education of zoological staff members in the most innovative modern and current techniques of captive exotic animal care. AAZK provides resources and continuing education for the animal care professional and supports zoo and aquarium personnel.

AAZK members strive to be the best animal caretakers possible. Even so, every zoo or animal facility has different job criteria standards and their own selection processes for personnel. Handling and training animals is actually a different job that trainers and educators do.

Do You Have Personal Experience With Animal Attacks?

Yes, unfortunately I have witnessed numerous attacks over my career. I've been hired to assess video tapes of what actually transpired prior to and during incidents, too. However, I've been fortunate to not be injured by an animal.

What I have surmised over the years is that:

  • Most attacks are telegraphed by the animal prior to escalation.
  • Human error is involved in most cases.
  • Equipment failure is responsible in some cases.
  • Lack of mitigation or failure to have outlined protocol and staff training on handling incidents complicates situations--and can escalate them.
  • Community rescue and support agencies need to be included in training and cooperative agreements in the event of an incident.

Other Interesting Tidbits Related to Animal Attacks

Are animals occupational hazards? They can be. Read this PDF file analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Zoo Keeper Emergency Strategies (2 Parts) from Guerrero's Animal Behavior Column in the Journal of the American Association of Zoo Keepers.

The Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition stated that 2004 set a tragic record and that animal incidents are occurring at an alarming rate across the country. See the info now.

PeTA Statistics on Feline Attacks

Chicago Sun Times September 10, 2004 Lion Keeper Mauled at Lincoln Park Zoo
Washington Times September 9, 2004 Lion Attacks Keeper at Chicago Zoo
Associated Press September 9, 2004 Lion Attacks Animal Keeper at Chicago Zoo
WCCO News September 9, 2004 Animal Keeper Injured By Lion at Chicago Zoo
Chicago Sun Times September 9, 2004 Lincoln Park Lions Maul Zoo Trainer
NBC5 September 9, 2004 Zoo Officials Baffled By Lion Attack
Chicago Tribune September 10, 2004: Lincoln Park Keeper Safe After Attack in Lion Pit
Chicago Tribune: Zoo Worker Recovering From Lion Attack
Chicago Business: Lion Injures Lincoln Park Zookeeper
Chicago Tribune: Trainer Home After Surviving Lion Attack
WISC TV Report on Chicago Lion Attack
Chicago Police Officer Witness: Chicago Lion Attack on Zoo Keeper
Mauled Chicago Lion Handler Condition Upgraded After Lion Attack
Lion Keeper Released from Hospital: Firefighter Recounts Rescue from Lion Attack


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